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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Eugene Onegin - Lyrical scenes in 3 acts (1879)
Helene Schneiderman - Larina; Kristine Opolais - Tatyana; Lena Belkina - Olga; Margarita Nekrasova - Filipyevna; Artur Ruciński - Eugene Onegin; Dmitry Korchak - Lensky; Günther Groissböck - Prince Gremin
Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana y Orquestra de la Comunitat Valencia/Omer Meir Wellber
rec. Palau de les Arts "Reina Sofia", Valencia, Spain, 8-11 February 2011
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround
Picture Format: 16:9, 1080i; Region ABC
Subtitles in English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese
Blu-ray Video - Reviewed in surround.
C MAJOR 712504 [150.00]

Watching this disc provoked a range of reactions: from the 'Wow!' spoken aloud to myself after Act One, irritation over the obscure disc menu system that caused several minutes delay in starting Act Two, disappointment at the loss of grandeur in the Act Three Polonaise and finally a grudging admission that this spectacular re-imagining of Tchaikovsky's great opera probably is 'consequent', that is, it does hang together in directorial terms.
 
To start with the technical trivia: there is once again music over the top level menu and once one has negotiated via the player remote control to the second level, the music returns. Typically thoughtless authoring derived from the world of pop-video I guess. The detailed menu system itself is non-existent until one guesses to select it via the remote; thereafter it can be used to select sound format and subtitle language. The subtitles themselves are thoughtfully moved around the screen on the few occasions when they would otherwise have obscured the action, proving that intelligence does exist in the authoring department - thank you.
 
The picture is excellent with completely unobtrusive camerawork nearly always giving the view one wants. The sound is clear and well balanced between stage and pit but is not expansive enough so Tchaikovsky's great moments are a bit restrained. The rear channels might as well have been off, even the audience applause comes from the front triplet of speakers. The booklet has notes about Tchaikovsky and his opera, plus a little about this production and a very short synopsis of the plot.
 
Musically this is well sung by everyone, but the roles of Tatyana, Olga and Onegin seemed to me to be quite outstandingly well performed. Kristine Opolais is absolutely wonderful, particularly in the Letter Scene and the final duet with Onegin. Both Opolais and Belkina look young enough to be convincing teenage sisters in Act One. Artur Ruciński is youthfully arrogant in Act One and suitably distraught at the end of Act Three. Make no mistake, this is a superb cast. The orchestra members are enthusiastic but not at their finest. It may have been an artefact of the pit microphone placement or perhaps they were under-strength on the night. In other recordings they have sounded much better. The conductor Omer Meir Wellber paces this wonderful score well but I had hoped for more passion as heard on, for example, Levine's Dresden recording from Deutsche Grammophon.
 
Mariusz Treliński's stage direction lulls one into acceptance in Act 1 with its stylised trees and flowers and a nice contrast between the country folk and townspeople. The settings are spare and focus mostly on the essentials of the plot. I use the word 'lulls' advisedly because Polish director Treliński has what the Germans call a konzept. To this end he introduces a new character, the elderly Eugene Onegin, listed in the booklet as "O***", who does not sing or speak but whose white-coated and white-headed presence is ubiquitous from before the music starts to the final curtain. In this concept, as described at www.culture.pl "Onegin is imprisoned in a past where he suffered defeat, a past which he must incessantly ponder and which he cannot escape." The entire plot is his increasingly anguished recollections and as such it takes on a dreamlike, starkly coloured and contrasted appearance, with geometrical shapes and increasingly stylised movements. The great Letter Scene is played as a slow moving tableau between Tatyana and "O***". In Act 2 Tatyana is seen dancing with "O" masked as a wolf; many of the dancers are so masked, women as well as men. This reaches a peak in Act 3 when the Polonaise is quite nightmarish and worlds away from a grand ball at a fashionable house in St Petersburg. It is more akin to an eccentric, modern fashion show when the 'dancers' process like manikins along the flat top of the stalls barrier that separates the orchestra pit from the front seats, using it as a catwalk. This area is often used: from the very beginning to allow the elderly Onegin to enter the scene; to stage the confrontation between Lensky and Onegin, and used again at the end of the opera for Tatyana's devastating dismissal of the young Onegin - while centre-stage, the elderly Onegin collapses, cast down by sinister black figures. The concept is at times erotically charged as in a red-lit Letter Scene, grimly funereal in the duel, and absolutely dark during the final duet when a formally black-suited Onegin confronts a Tatyana in a sedate but startlingly pink satin dress.
 
This is no way to be introduced to Tchaikovsky's opera; for that a more easily understood staging should be used, or even the famous Petr Weigl film using Solti and Covent Garden forces as a sound-track (which is available on a Decca DVD). However, if you are an experienced opera-goer and like a challenge, this spectacular and thought-provoking Blu-ray is worth your money.
 
Dave Billinge